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Organic waste has huge untapped potential to provide clean energy – IEA

The world is only using a fraction of the potential to produce biogas and biomethane from organic waste, which could cover around 20 percent of today’s global demand for gas, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The world is only using a fraction of the potential to produce biogas and biomethane from organic waste, which could cover around 20 percent of today’s global demand for gas, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Modern societies and economies produce increasing amounts of organic waste – such as agricultural residues, food waste, and animal manure – that can be used to produce biogas and biomethane (aka renewable natural gas – RNG), clean energy sources with multiple potential benefits for sustainable development.

Biogas offers a local source of power and heat for communities and clean cooking fuel for households. Upgrading it to biomethane brings all the energy system benefits of natural gas without the associated net emissions.

The world’s biogas and biomethane resources could cover 20 percent of global gas demand while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the “Outlook for biogas and biomethane: Prospects for organic growth” report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on March 19, 2020.

Biogas and biomethane can play major roles in a sustainable energy future, but for the moment we’re missing out on this opportunity to cut waste and cut emissions. A push from governments can give biogas and biomethane the necessary momentum, with benefits across energy, transport, agriculture, and the environment said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director.

Every part of the world has significant scope to produce biogas and/or biomethane. The availability of sustainable feedstocks for these purposes is set to grow by 40 percent by 2040, according to the IEA report.

The creation of biodigester markets in East Africa, such as this one in Kenya, is feasible, according to a new analysis from the US Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in collaboration with Hivos.

The largest opportunities lie in the Asia-Pacific region, where natural gas consumption and imports have been growing rapidly in recent years. There are also significant possibilities across North and South America, Europe, and Africa.

Most of the biomethane resources examined in the IEA report are currently more expensive to produce than the prevailing natural gas prices in their region, but the cost gap is projected to narrow over time. Recognition of the value of avoided carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions goes a long way towards improving the cost-competitiveness of biomethane.

Biogas and biomethane production in 2018 (35 million toe) compared with sustainable potential today (graphic courtesy IEA).

The production and use of these gases embody the idea of a more circular economy in which resources are continuously used and reused – and in which rising demand for energy services can be met while also delivering wider environmental benefits.

As governments seek to accelerate their clean energy transitions, they should not forget the importance of low-carbon gases such as biomethane and biogas. Among other benefits, biogas and biomethane also offer a way to bring rural communities and industries into the transformation of the energy sector, said Dr Birol.

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